“When you find a girl who’ll have you, marry her,” had been the sum total of the advice Randy Walker had given his boys when it came to women. He’d never said anything about wealthy girls with intimacy issues. No, in that area, Mike was on his own. He’d never been the brain child of his family, but he thought he did okay. He could get his wealthy girl to smile, to laugh, to sigh and roll her eyes, and to lean against his shoulder too. To hold his hand and fall asleep on the drive home, to call him sweet and bake him cookies and say his name in all the ways it counted.
He knew he loved her in February: steam leaving the mug of coffee in her hands in thick curls, her hair a snarled mess around her shoulders, the morning on the other side of the window bitter and windswept, her face lovely, pale, and lonely in a way he didn’t understand. She sat in the chair in his bedroom, in his shirt and a pair of socks that went up to her knees, gooseflesh on her slender legs. A copy of Oliver Twist had been open across the arm of the chair. “I think it might snow today,” she’d said, and he’d been completely in love with her.
He thought she might have loved him back in March: in from the rain, his clothes stuck to his skin, the umbrella showering the hardwood of her entry hall, the dinner she’d planned forgotten when he’d helped her out of her jacket and she’d been shivering with cold. That day, when she’d pushed his wet shirt back off his shoulders and stretched up on her toes to kiss him, he was sure there was something new shining deep down in her coffee-colored eyes. “You’re so cute,” she’d said, and he’d known: she loved him.
It was different with her. Even when the chemical high of firsts had faded, it was replaced with something that still nearly blinded him. Something bright and hot. Something he was afraid would slip through his fingers if he didn’t latch onto it tight. His family didn’t love Delta. His best friend didn’t either. But Mike loved her, and when the separate houses and separate names got to be too much, he decided to do something about it.
On an overcast afternoon in May, the sky churning overhead and promising a storm, he stood in front of a display case in what had become his favorite jewelry store and let his eyes move across diamonds.
“This setting is really popular right now,” the saleslady reached into the case and pointed at an oblong stone set in a ring of smaller diamonds, its band thick and platinum. It looked like something Mariah Carey would have picked out. She smiled up at him. “It’s one of our bestsellers.”
She might have known what was selling, but she didn’t know his girl. “I’m not interested in popular,” Mike said, and earned a wide-eyed look. “She’ll want something all her own.”
Almost six months on the job and the timid sales associate in need of a makeover was still timid and still in need of a makeover. She stood at one of the registers, phone in hand, covering the mouthpiece, and waved to catch Delta’s attention as she passed.
“There’s a Mr. Davison who’s asking for you. He’s called four times.”
Delta sighed and checked her watch – it was silver and dainty pink crystals: a birthday gift from Mike. She had only an hour left until she was off for the night, and she had offered to make dinner for Mike; he’d requested a night in and she was making sides to go with the steak and chicken he would grill. The last thing she wanted was to deal with some irate customer and get stuck on the phone after her shift was over. But she said, “I’ll take it in my office,” and went there, bracing herself for a whole batch of apologies and promises to “straighten things out”.
“This is Delta Brooks,” she answered as she propped a hip against the corner of her desk.
“Miss Brooks,” the male voice that greeted her didn’t sound irate in the least. “Tim Davison with Saks.”
Saks. Her mind went reeling back to a conversation she’d had with her father months before. “I could put a call into someone in a corporate office…”
He’d put in the call. And not to Nordstrom corporate, but to Saks.
“I…I…why are you calling me?” she said, too shocked to come up with anything more polite.
“Well,” there was a smile to his voice, “I hear that if I’m looking to bring new young managers on board, you’re the woman to talk to.”
Stunned, she listened to the blood rush through her ears, and to the job he offered her in New York.
Delta was running a knife through a head of romaine lettuce when she heard the door to her apartment open. She’d left it unlocked and Mike let himself in and then turned the deadbolt. She watched the sliced lettuce unfurl in curly ribbons and tried to still the sudden thundering of her pulse. How was she going to tell him about Saks? About the likelihood she’d be moving to NYC and…doing what? Leaving him behind? Taking him along? He might be able to find another job but he might not. She should take the job, shouldn’t she? Hadn’t she always wanted to keep climbing that ladder until she was a daughter her father could be proud of?
“I got you chicken cutlets,” Mike said as he stepped into the kitchen, and it startled her for some reason. “Is that alright? I figure you’ll just slice it up and put it on your salad anyway.”
Her hands stilled on the knife as he drew up next to her and she lifted her face, trying for a smile, to receive the kiss he dropped on her lips. “That’s fine,” she assured when he pulled away, and went back to her salad, too preoccupied to keep any sort of pleasant expression on her face.
He loved her. That was all she could think every time she conjured up an image of the New York skyline. She could tell that he did: it was in his green eyes and all over his angular, stupid Captain America face and in the awkwardly sweet way he tucked her in next to him on the couch. He loved her and she wanted him to fight for her to stay almost as much as she expected him not to.
“What else are you making?” he asked, and one of his big arms came around her shoulders and across her chest while she worked. “I smell bread.”
“You smell green bean casserole,” she corrected. “It’s in the oven. Actually,” she fought the urge to squirm, his hug not appreciated as she contemplated telling him about Saks, “could you go ahead and start the meat? We should be ready to eat otherwise.”
It suddenly felt too domestic and comfortable – her tossing their salad together while she watched him through the doors out on her balcony, grilling their dinner and whistling to himself. It had become too easy, the homey sort of peace that made Georgia, and everything safe, too hard to give up. She didn’t know what it was like to feel this because she’d never let herself relax, hadn’t ever let her guard down. And now, because of Mike – his grilling and whistling, his bad jokes and determination to burrow his way under her skin – she had a decision to make where there should have been none.
The French doors opened before she expected them to. “Ummm…” Mike started, and she glanced over to see him in the threshold with a big wet stain splashed across the fronts of his khakis. “This isn’t what it looks like,” he said, his grin sheepish, blushing. “I might have…kinda spilled the whole cup of melted butter all over myself.”
“I see that,” she said with a snort. “Alright.” She set her salad aside. “Get out of them and I’ll throw them in the wash before the grease sets.”
He blinked at her, the empty measuring cup that had held the butter in one hand, grill brush in the other. “And stand out here in my boxers?”
“My neighbors will enjoy the view.”
He rolled his eyes, but set cup and brush aside and ditched his pants. “You just like to keep me naked is all.”
“I’m nothing but man-meat to you, aren’t I?”
“I couldn’t have said it better myself.”
“You could at least pretend I’m funny.”
“That would ruin all my fun, though.”
Delta stood up on her tiptoes and pressed a kiss to his cheek. “Be quick with this meat and we can move on to man-meat sooner,” she whispered against his jaw before she dropped to her heels and gathered up his khakis.
“Don’t tease me,” he called to her back as she headed into the kitchen.
“Wouldn’t dare,” she called back, and turned into the hall and out of sight.
She had a washer and dryer hidden behind a pocket door in the short hall that led to her guest bedroom. They were two of her must-haves when it came to apartment living; she’d made plenty of concessions in her lifestyle since leaving the nest, but communal laundry wasn’t ever going to be one of them. Delta draped Mike’s pants over the top of the dryer and reached for the bottle of OxiClean stowed on the shelf above. He’d managed to get both legs with the butter, all the way down to the knees, and she poured a liberal amount of detergent on the stain, not too optimistic about the Dockers ever looking the same again.
A lump in one of the front pockets caught her eye and as the washer started to fill with cold water, she reached for whatever it was. Her fingers brushed velvet and then curled around what was an unmistakably square box.
Her heart leapt halfway up her throat with a little gasp just at the feel of the box. “No,” she breathed, not sure if it was terror or elation that gripped her lungs and squeezed tight until her head started to swim. Slowly, she withdrew her hand and the blue velvet box she held with white-knuckled fervor.
“You’d of course have to relocate to New York,” Tim Davison had said over the phone just hours before, “but it would be a wonderful opportunity.”
Delta took the box in both shaking hands and felt a hot flush steal over her. Breathless, she cracked the lid open wide and the light caught something sparkly nestled against the velvet.
A wonderful opportunity.
The diamond was square-cut, a great big nugget of shine, on a simple, smooth, delicate platinum band. It was classic. Timeless. Flawless.
“Oh, no,” Delta repeated, and a lump formed in her throat.
Saks wanted her. Mike wanted her. Saks offered her a salary. Mike offered her a ring. Saks was a wonderful opportunity…but…
“Aw, shit,” he said behind her and she whirled around to face him, her shaky pulse becoming even more erratic.
Mike’s face was a tense mix of startled and worried, boyish and masculine and more than she could look at and retain any sort of composure. Her eyes started to glaze over and she blinked hard, gaze dropping to the ring she held.
“This clearly isn’t the way I wanted to do this,” Mike said. “I was at least gonna wear pants.”
“Mike,” she said, and didn’t know what else to say after that. She was so blindsided, she couldn’t put a label on the swell of emotion that was sweeping through her. She wanted to rake her claws down his face and rail at him for his poor timing, for attaching himself to her in a way she couldn’t ignore until he was this very real conflict in her choice to leave. She wanted to shove him, to scream at him, to punish him for making her feel this way. But she wanted to see what the ring felt like on her finger, too. Wanted to kiss him, to press her face to his chest and let him hold her and tell her how worth it it was to give up ambition for love. She wanted to be certain, to be sure, that all the tender, budding things she felt for him were the beginning of something deeper and truer and more important than anything else in her life. She wanted all of that at once and choked on it.
“I wanted to plan it all out,” he said more quietly. “I wanted to do it the way you’d want to remember it.” He’d wanted it to be perfect for her. Up to some standards he thought she held in regards to proposals.
“Mike,” she repeated, and her voice cracked, her hands shook so hard she couldn’t hide the tremors. She didn’t actually want to claw his face or to scream at him, she just didn’t know how to handle the overwhelming knowledge that a man, that this man, loved her enough to want to marry her.
He sank to one knee in front of her, in his boxers and socks, and she would have laughed at him if his expression hadn’t been so serious and terrified. He reached up and put both hands on her hips and she was grateful to be stabilized, even if he was shaking just a little bit too.
“Since you’ve already seen it,” he wet his lips and tried for a smile. “Might as well go for it, huh?”
All she could do was stare at him.
“Okay, so, here goes.” He cleared his throat. “I know I’m a total broke-ass compared to your family. And I know you’re too good for me. But I…I love you, sweetheart.”
She wasn’t proof against that word. Her eyes filled with tears again.
“Delta Brooks,” Mike said in an unsteady voice, “will you marry me?”
A wonderful opportunity was the job of a lifetime. But it was a chance to be happy too. A chance to call someone her own. A chance to defy all her worries about settling for a love that wasn't warm.
“I have a job offer,” she should have said. Instead, she watched him take the box from her, pluck the ring out so carefully with his big fingers and slide it onto hers.
Her throat was so tight, all she could do was nod.
Mike beamed. His hands slid around to the small of her back and he pulled her down into his arms. She laid her cheek against the top of his head and closed her eyes against tears that were joy and sadness in unequal parts.
“Do you like it?”
The clouds had drifted apart and the moon was out, blue and white and casting its light through the open sheer drapes in Delta’s bedroom. The sheets were around her waist and she laid on her side, facing the window, the moonlight lying along the curve of her waist and shoulder, her hair midnight against her pale, glowing skin. Propped on an elbow behind her, Mike had a view of her breasts, and of her hand where it curled around the edge of her pillowcase, her new rock looking like its own light source.
She flexed her fingers, nails digging into the pillow, diamond winking. “It’s beautiful,” she said, like she’d said a dozen times since he’d slipped it on her finger, but there was a hollow note to her voice that had the fine hairs on the back of his neck standing up.
His hand found the deepest hollow of her waist and moved upward, over the bony ridges that were her ribs, down the soft, round swells of her breasts, until he was between them and could feel the thump of her pulse beneath her sternum. Her skin was so soft – he wanted to put his mouth to her tits again and get carried away, but her voice kept his brain engaged.
“You sure?” he pressed, and felt her shift against him.
Her dark lashes fluttered. “When do I ever lie about things being beautiful?”
It was true that she was a poor liar, but still, something was bothering her, and it was in turn bothering him. “Delta.”
She sighed, and the sheets rustled as she rolled over onto her back and looked up at him, her eyes white around the dark centers, shining with the moon. “I love the ring,” she said, and neither her voice nor face were convincing this time.
“Then why are you looking at me like you want to stab me?”
She frowned, a twitch of shadow in the dark. “I’m not looking at you like that.”
“Then what -,”
“I had a job offer today,” she said, and then the white circles of her eyes were even bigger.
Mike heard the faint drone of warning sirens in the back of his head. “What do you mean?”
Delta shook his hand off and sat up, leaned back against the headboard, arms folded over her breasts. Her hair fell across her shoulder, black as night, sinister almost. “I had a job offer from Saks today,” she repeated, voice heavy. “To work for them in New York.”